A summary of the current state of Gymnastics ….
How did we get to where we are today??? Nothing happens in a vacuum and certainly not overnight. This has been a process that has taken place over decades and all the factors in this document have had an impact. Of course there are more and one cannot omit anything that has influenced the changes in Gymnastics and the culture that surrounds the sport. However, the one single most important factor that cannot be stressed enough is leadership, or the lack thereof.
Larry Nassar did not start this debacle. More accurately, he is the outcome and the result of years and years of issues of misguidance and the consequences of choices made for decades, and specifically, through poor leadership. And by the way, I am not just referring to leadership at the executive level, but at all levels of leadership… in programs and administration and coaching and management and all those people that were decision makers that have set the course that have taken us to where we are today.
When I started in Gymnastics, all my “coaches” were teachers… they went to college and got teaching degrees. Many were teaching regular subjects and then coached after school. Many had advanced degrees… Dr. Newt Loken, Dr. Gene Wettstone, Dr. Mimi Murray, Dr. Eric Hughes, Dr. Harold Fry, and many more. A large number of the male Gymnasts that graduated in the 60’s and 70’s were college graduates as teachers, many in Physical Education. They took course like Developmental and Child Psychology, Sciences courses in anatomy and kinesiology, courses in coaching and they were trained to teach.
That all changed in the late 70’s and beyond. We had a huge influx of foreign coaches, many from eastern Europe which was well know for its harsh tactics and abusive treatment of athletes, especially young girls. The eastern European governments used their success in sports, especially through the Olympics, to prop of their political agendas and image to the west… No one knew much about Rumania as a country… we knew little of their poverty and the horrible treatment of their people… instead, we knew Nadia !!! We were overtaken by Olga and Nadia and all the wonderful athletes that came and visited and performed and competed in the USA. And then we started watching the huge numbers of coaches infiltrate our sport.
Most came from Eastern Europe. If you go back to the Soviet Union’s Men’s teams from the 70’s, 80’s and through the Unified Team in 1992, almost everyone one of the men and most of the women on those teams live in the USA. At the same time, we were losing our men’s programs in the USA. Where we had more than 230 Men’s collegiate programs in the 60’s, that number started to rapidly decline with the passage of Title lX in 1972 – Not because of the addition of women’s sports in colleges, but because of the way Athletic Director’s used the law to grow Football and Basketball. First, by dropping men’s sports and adding inexpensive women’s sports like tennis, golf, volleyball and soccer and second, by dropping groups of both men’s and women’s sports at the same time and blaming it on “Gender Equity.” During this period, we were graduating fewer and fewer Gymnasts each year that went into coaching and were educated as teachers.
Today, with only 16 men’s programs in college, we have no hope of sustaining our club coaching ranks with qualified coaches and teachers.
Instead we are attracting a population of people, many that have no passion, no integrity and no love for the sport and certainly, no educational background to be dealing with children.
Many other sports have an accepted and structured path through the coaching development programs. Baseball, basketball and football have youth leagues nationwide, programs in virtually every high school and college in the country as well as their professional platforms. This allows for a progression that can be evaluated and reviewed in detail at all levels. In Gymnastics, a non-gymnastics person who has no background can open a private club and put a sign that says “Olympic Gymnastics” on his building ( other than the USOC eventually telling him he cannot use the word “Olympic” – but that isn’t relevant to the discussion.)
After the 1984 Olympics and throughout the next two decades, the Olympics went through some major transformations. While previous Olympic Champions were pretty well known, many Olympic athletes became superstars. These athletes became corporate icons and spokespersons and they were revered as legends and heroes.
They literally became on-par with Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and were well-known worldwide. This put more and more pressure on the younger generation that it was not about participation, but about winning.
This cultural shift from sports being part of the education system to an independent platform that could quickly catapult someone to stardom at a young age gained immediate attention from parents, coaches and other individuals who had no interest in the athlete or the child in many cases, but rather what kind of benefits such talents and skills could provide, even to an outsider.
Throughout this past 15 – 20 years, college sports have become huge businesses. Football and Basketball exist in a world of their own in the college environment. The coaches are revered and almost “God-like “ and seeming are justified to make 20 times as much as the University President or Chancellor.
College star athletes are known nationwide and their worth is immediately rewarded in contracts to play professional sports worth millions and millions of dollars, even before they ever don the teams uniform.
Professional athletes sign contracts that may pay them for the next decade and in amounts that rank them in equal gross revenues with small countries in the world.
Even the Olympics has been directly and dramatically affected.
Olympic host cities are expected to spend tens of Billions of dollars on an event that last two weeks, even if those expenditures do nothing for the tax payers or government once the athletes and journalist go home. Sports like Golf have been added, with the forecast of bringing in more television and sponsorship revenue, regardless of its elitism and the fact that many countries in the world simply have no involvement in the sport.
Even the Olympic rules and disciplines are going through major changes with events like the proposed mixed relays in Swimming and Track and Field, just to allow Michael Phelps and Usian Bolt to have one more Olympic participation, which adds value to the broadcasters and sponsors, and ultimately, to the Olympic pocketbook.
At the other end of the spectrum, look at our youth sports programs in the USA: We have travel teams for 5 and 6 year olds playing baseball, softball and soccer. 10 year olds have personal trainers. College Basketball coaches travel across the country to see the 6 foot 3 inch 8th grader who can dunk and they offer him a scholarship – waiting for him in four years! What about the father accused of giving his son Anabolic Steroids because he wanted him to make the Freshman Football Team next year! And in Gymnastics Clubs, as the Mom walks in with her 6 year old daughter, they are told that this club has an Olympic Development Program and the Club won the Level 4 State Meet, Runner Up, this past year! And most of their Level 3’s were doing the same skills Nadia did when she was 8 years old ! And finally, when you meet a dad who is watching his son’s Tee ball Game and you ask him which one is his son, and his answer is, “He’s the shortstop!” Well, you just have to wonder…..
The USAG Board of Directors and Board Structure
If you want to evaluate where you are today, you need to go back in history and evaluate how you got where you are. In the case of Gymnastics, one major consideration ought to be the USAG Board of Directors.
The Board over a period of a few decades from the start of the United States Gymnastics Federation (“ USGF” – the proper legal name for USA Gymnastics ) was comprised and continued to ne comprised of national organizations that had a direct involvement in the sport of Gymnastics. The organization based board grew to more than 20 national based organizations into the late 70’s and through the 80;s and 90’s.
These organizations included such groups as the following:
*All organizations had one voting member unless otherwise indicated:
- *The NCAA ( 2 votes )
- NCAA Men’s Coaches
- NCAA Women’s Coaches
- NGJA Men’s Judges
- NGJAW Women’s Judges
- Junior Olympics – Boys
- Junior Olympics – Girl
- Elite Coaches / Men
- Elite Coaches / Women
- Special Olympic
- YMCA’s of America
- Sokol USA
- Jewish Welfare Board
- National Federation of State High School Assoc. (2 votes)
- Member Directors- Elected by the USAG National Membership ( 2 – Men, 2 – Women, and 2 – Rhythmic )
- Athlete Representatives – Must comprise 20% of the voting Membership of the Actual Board – required by the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 , Federal Law – 2 for Men, 2 for Women and 2 for Rhythmic… total of 6. These Athlete representatives to the board were elected by the National Team Members in the three disciplines. Elections usually took place at the National Championships. All qualified athletes had the right to vote.
( I may have missed a few but I am close ! )
The organizations chose their representatives to the Board and they were asked to change and review terms every two years. In principle, we never knew who was coming to the Board meetings until 30 days before when the organizations had to send in the names of who would represent them at the meetings.
There were two meetings a year; a spring meeting and the second meeting in November. Typical schedule was an Executive Committee meeting all day Friday and the Board would meet all day Saturday and Sunday until mid afternoon. Also, the Board required a monthly Board report that was sent to the national organizations and to specific individuals so designated by the national organization.
The monthly Board report was a comprehensive document with a report from every office department, including Executive, Finance and Accounting, Membership, Men’s Program, Women’s Program and Rhythmic Program,
Events, Marketing, Publications, FIG and schedules and directories.
In the early 2000’s, Peter Ueberroth, then Chair of the USOC, wrote to all the NGB’s and told them they ought to try and restructure their Boards of make them smaller and more efficient. This was actually Ueberroth’s ploy to shrink his Board and allow him more control. The USOC previously had an annual “House of Delegates” meeting each year that involved well over 100 people representing all sports and all organizations associated with the USOC. In any case, the USAG office pushed this amid a significant amount of opposition from the organizations that had been part of USAG since its inception. Somehow is was passed and the Board went from an organization based assembly to a group of “somehow” hand picked individuals. The other thing that changed was that there was no transparent way of either selecting or removing a board member. That is why many of the current board members had been associated with the board for 12, 16 and even 20 years !!! Also, we had the top three leadership positions on the Board that were individuals that not only had no Gymnastics background, but had no sports background!!
Suffice to say that the Board rubber stamped everything and were totally complacent in their responsibilities. I am sure there were some good board members who would have liked to have more involvement but the structure and the way the office managed and communicated with the board simply prohibited it !
Is there a salvation for Gymnastics? Can we fix this debacle that has been plaguing and decimating us for the last 20 or 30 years… while the vast majority were still doing what they thought was best… teaching ! And others, were willing to do whatever it took to win… and when “win at all costs” because the mantra, assume the worst will follow.
When the headlines in the Salt Lake Tribune in 2002 during the Olympic Games read, “ USA Loses Gold!”
I thought about the USA Hockey athletes on the Silver medal team whose ultimate dreams had been diminished to a one-time headline written by some wacked sports journalist who never stood on the ice and who never was checked into the boards.
While there are so many social and cultural issues surrounding what has taken place in our national sports programs and in particular, Gymnastics, we need to review and learn from our history and our past to make the kind of changes that will allow us to progress and move forward.
There are challenges. Certainly the current climate in sports in our country makes things difficult. The same is true for the horrible image that Gymnastics now has with the general public. It is very reasonable to think that we will lose a great number of potential gymnastics customers simply based on a parents decision of what sport to put their child in. There are ways to address this, none of which are happening at this time, but that will be saved for another writing.
But first, who is to blame…???
For allowing the sport to get away from us…
For letting others tell them what was best for them, their athlete and their businesses…
For “dinking the Kool-Aid” and allowing a small
group of self-serving individuals dictate what was right and what was best for the sport and for the members
For not questioning the leadership and asking the hard and relevant questions
For allowing their sport to be taken over by people who
Had totally different goals and objectives, not only about the sport but about the most fundamental doctrines of integrity, ethics, honesty, transparency, Sportsmanship and protection of the sport cultue
For putting winning in front of education, service,
supervision and care for the individual and the integrity of the sport
For allowing others they did not know, trust or understand to take over and determine the sports destiny
The USAG Board of Directors
For selecting and allowing poor leadership…. People without a passion and love for Gymnastics and an in-depth understanding and knowledge of the sport
For using the USAG as a business only – with little or no assumption of responsibility for the millions of children in the sport, many of whom are the funding source for their salaries and lifestyle
For supporting the attitude of winning is the only thing that counts
For possessing and attitude of no responsibility for the welfare of the athletes they are suppose to serve and who pay their way
For using member as taxpayers and the main funding source… with no voice, no engagement and no
For enabling a population of people to hold young athletes hostage to an environment of abuse, mistrust and the horrific acts that have decimated the real values of Gymnastics and youth sports
For not knowing their responsibilities to the millions and millions of children in the USA who are involved in youth sports
Who possess the attitude that winning is the most important thing and that if our athletes win, the USOC wins
Who is not a sport organization but a fundraising entity who shows up every two years and takes credit for doing nothing more than paying for the athletes to get to the Games
Who does nothing to involve themselves in sport, except to use the hard work, talent and success of America’s athletes to sell their sponsorships, license agreements broadcast rights
Who provides paltry sums to the NGB’s most elite
athletes who in turn are totally devoted to personal success and achievement.
Who awards an amount of money to an American Gold medal winner at the Games that is less than 5% of what their executives are paid for living off of these athletes hard word, dedication, talent and success.
Who does absolutely nothing to try and educate the nations public and children about Olympism, the Olympic ideals and the value of sportsmanship – all of which would be of a great benefit to the socialization of
Of our nations youth sports programs as well as the human social process that makes for a better society
Where the value and meaning of the Games originally created by founder Pierre de Coubertin has been altered and changed for the ability to sell sponsorships and broadcast rights
Where the Olympic Games has been transformed into just another sporting event, except now it costs billions of dollars
Where hosts cities do not bid on the honor of hosting the most important global sporting event of mankind but for the pursuit of spending the billions they can take in to build infrastructure, political recognition and lavish venues that will fall to waste soon after the Games conclude
Unable to curtail the massive sports performance doping programs used worldwide by athletes from every country and in virtually event sport
Constantly embroiled in corruption, ethics issues, deceit and illegal activities, and in every case, always associated with money, power and the want for political position
Where positions of authority and responsibility are not given to passionate and educated experts, but rather countries elite and royalty and political persons who bring little quality of expertise or leadership where it is most needed
Who felt it was their responsibility and obligation to push the athlete as much and as hard as possible in order to accomplish the coaches personal goals
Who felt it that “win at all costs” was the right thing to do for the athlete
Who looked at the athlete as a means to an end… and not as a child, an individual and a huge responsibility!
Who felt that that is they modeled themselves like the winners, regardless of how detrimental or abusive, that
Winning would trump all the bad and abusive behavior
Who felt the athlete would accept the abusive and toxic treatment, if they succeeded athletically.
Who felt their personal achievements would be rewarded through power and position and money and that they were willing to compromise the integrity of the athlete – coach relationship for themselves
Who enabled others to take advantage of their athlete
Because they felt it was better for them, regardless of how detrimental it may be for their athlete
Who simply put themselves ahead of their athlete in terms of what they wanted to accomplish rather than what the athlete wanted to accomplish.
Who used their position, not only with their athlete, but with athletes the parents and the sport, for their desire for personal gain and power
Who may put their child’s athletic success in front of their care and concern for their personal and moral safety and development
Who may have put more trust in a coach or a third party in front of their responsibility to protect their child
Who may have been swept up by society’s emphasis on winning and the glorification of athlete as stars and celebrities and role models
Who may have used the sports environment as a substitute for good parenting… in assuming that the coaches and trainers will provide the same level of care and concern for their child’s well– being as they should through quality parenting
For enabling a population of misguided adults to take advantage of situations, all of which could be prevented with the proper planning, foresight and supervision and proper levels of trust.
The Sports Culture in America
For creating an environment that is diametrically opposed to the real value and purpose of youth sports
Where the basketball coach and football coach at the major universities are well known and have celebrity status while no one has ever heard of the University President or the world renown professors whose research and inventions have made worldwide valued contributions
For degrading college sports to nothing more than money machines where football and basketball coaches make 8 figure salaries and the majority of their athletes never graduate
Who praises the sports star for his ability on the field but allows his escape from punishment for domestic violence
Who glorifies an individual who can play basketball but makes no other valued or lasting contribution to society while
proclaiming to be a role model
The universities who have lost their way and drop the sports experience for athletes in dozens of other sports while spending billions of dollars of their football and basketball programs
For the mentality and promotion that the Team that wins the Super Bowl or the World Series or the Stanley Cup is the champion, and all the rest of the teams in the league are the losers
For the dumbing of developmental sports programs where coaches and parents place the ability and talent of very young children above the values of the educational experience
Where a parent will have a personal hitting coach for their 8 year old daughter in Softball but would never consider a private tutor when the same child fails in math or science.
Where parents of a 10 year old Pee Wee football player spend more time looking into the value of nutritional supplements
as compared to the value of an educational experience
For its tolerance of sub-standard and bad behavior in sports
For allowing sports to be glorified to a point of compromising the culture of the quality and character of it’s people
For allowing our children to be victimized by over zealous individuals who have no interest in the individual participant but use these individuals for their own personal achievement, reward and recognition.
For not requiring and demanding a higher standard of people who are responsible to teaching and educating our future generations
ALL of US !!!
When we saw things that looked wrong, we should have spoken up
When we heard about things that were wrong, we should have asked questions and investigated further
When we asked to approve things that we questioned or we felt could lead to consequences, we should have offered options that we were comfortable with… ( like when the 25 year old level 5 coach offered to take the Level 5 team to the meet over the weekend… ??? )
When we saw things or heard of things that we not comfortable with or sure of or perhaps sounded questionable, we should have given priority decision making in the best interest and safety of our children.
We should have looked at our child’s Gymnastics experience as an educational opportunity, something to allow them to grow and develop and learn from…. And not have expectations that were either unrealistic or inappropriate
We should have entered our child into youth sports / Gymnastics with the primary purpose being for them to learn a sport, get exercise, improve their physicality and basic health, meet new friends, gain social skills, be part of a team, learn to listen and take instructions, learn to make good decisions about themselves and their safety, build their self-esteem, experience the good and the hard parts about competition, learn how to win and lose, accept consequences for our actions, be a good sport and gain life skills that help build character, ethics, honesty, commitment and social compatibility.
Return to teaching Gymnastics… where the focus is on the individual to learn skills, have fun, have social engagement with friends, be taught by teachers and educators and learn life skills!! Not try to win the Olympics with every mom and every 6 year old that walks in the door. We lost our focus, our responsibility, our real opportunity to impact youth. Too much emphasis on stars and winning and money… executives in Olympic sports paid huge salaries so a few kids can win a medal at the Games. We have the wrong people in leadership positions. These people have no passion for children, they have passion for their own personal advancement, at the expense of others, no matter what the cost.
The real value of Gymnastics and all youth sports for that matter is not the skills you learn, but the work and effort and process you went through to learn those skills.
Being able to do a back handspring will likely have little impact on you as a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or a business person.
What will have an impact on your future is one’s dedication to the process… getting to practice on time, listening to your coaches and teachers, putting in the effort and hard work to improve, following the rules, respecting and helping your teammates, understanding what it takes to get better and improve yourself, setting your personal goals and creating plans, strategies and the various ways to achieve those goals. using sports to prepare yourself for your future by learning life skills… those skills and attributes you will use everyday for the rest of your life to help you be a better person, a more successful person and a person of high moral character. If this is what you learn from your Gymnastics experience, that your sports career has been a overwhelming success!
We need to remember the words of Pierre de Coubertin:
“Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of a good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”